19 November 2012
Eleanor of Aquitaine
As an aristocratic woman never intended to inherit her father’s duchy and living in the socially constricted confines of the Middle Ages, Eleanor of Aquitaine led a surprisingly long and influential life. She was the queen consort to two kings of two different, yet both powerful, European countries; conspired with her sons to lead a revolt against her husband; and even after being imprisoned for over ten years, she persevered and exerted herself to protect her rights, her ancestral lands, and her children.
Eleanor of Aquitaine led a life active in the politics and administration of her inherited lands and later England, after her second husband Henry of Anjou acceded to the English throne. During the High Middle Ages, it was extremely rare for a woman to wield political power because of the rigid social constraints enforced by both Church and state. However, Eleanor was the heiress to an extremely large and rich estate, wealthier even than the kingdom of France (Parsons, 4-5). Therefore, whomever she married would control this valuable expanse of land. This is because power was determined in patrimonial terms during her lifetime, and marriage was an “important instrument of royal alliance” (Parsons, 63). Eleanor’s first marriage to the Capetian King Louis VII in 1137, therefore, resulted in her vast property and rights being handed over to her husband.
After fifteen years of marriage, however, Eleanor did not produce a male heir, which posed a considerable threat to the continuation of the Capetian royal dynasty. Although both sides placed blame on the other, the marriage was annulled on the “convenient grounds of consanguinity;” the Church deemed them too closely related, even though they had already been married fifteen years (Weir 90). After her first marriage was dissolved, Eleanor regained possession of her former lands of Aquitaine and Poitou. The value of her estate attracted many suitors; eight weeks after her annulment, thirty-year-old Eleanor of Aquitaine married eighteen-year-old Henry of Anjou. Although their age difference was considerable, they shared similar backgrounds and were both ambitious. Henry inherited the throne of England two years after the wedding; their collective wealth and vast empire marked the beginning of a 330-year Plantagenet reign that was marked by “insatiable royal ambition” (108).
It is important to note that although Eleanor is often seen as rebellious, she was, in many ways, the ideal medieval woman. After her marriage to Louis VII was annulled, she was for the first time free. However, a woman during the twelfth century could not remain so for long, especially one as powerful and wealthy as Eleanor. Because every woman needed a “protector” of sorts, Eleanor was thoughtful and cunning when determining her next match (Flori 56-57). Although his claims to the English throne were “not officially recognized”, Henry Plantagenet was the eldest son of Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, and Matilda, daughter of King Henry I. Upon his father’s death in 1151, Henry was both Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou. Through his marriage to Eleanor he gained immediate political advantage and was able to withstand plots from his younger brothers, hoping to gain power (DNB).
In a scandalous move, Eleanor did not notify Louis VII of her marriage. According to the feudal customs of France at the time, it was required for an overlord to assent to his vassals’ marriages; technically, both Henry and Eleanor were Louis VII’s vassals. The swiftness of their marriage accounts to the fact that they never intended to tell Louis VII about the event; because Henry held a large amount of political power and was the most likely candidate to succeed to the English throne, his power combined with Eleanor’s wealth and land posed a serious danger to Louis VII. Therefore, he never would have allowed such a union to occur. When he officially heard the...